Cold War screenwriter Janusz Głowacki used absurdity to show humour in tragedy

Janusz Głowacki in Warsaw, June 30, 2017 Maciej Kłoś/PAP

“My father believed absurdity is the only way to show the world in its cruelty and madness. He looked for the humor in tragedy, in personal and political stories,” Zuzanna Głowacka, daughter of internationally acclaimed playwright Janusz Głowacki, tells TFN.

Talking from her home in Warsaw, the 38-year-old journalist and writer said: “That's how he wrote and lived. Writing was his life.

“He was working on his latest book at the time of his death,” she added.

Głowacki, who died last year whilst on holiday in Egypt, took the chaos of Communism and its collapse in Poland to create dark and humorous works about the nature of totalitarianism and about his own life as an émigré in America.

A well-respected writer by the time of his eight years of self-imposed exile in New York following the imposition of Martial Law in Poland, he had already written the screenplay for Andrzej Wajda’s film Hunting Flies (1969) and was in London for a production of his play Cinders at the Royal Court Theatre when the crackdown came.

His plays were soon appearing at some of NYC’s top theatres including the Public and the Vineyard.

Janusz Głowacki on the stage at the Ateneum Theatre in Warsaw, November 23, 2009.Marcin Kaliński/PAP

Born on September 13, 1938, in Poznań, west-central Poland, during his youth he was involved in a cabaret-like student theatre in Warsaw, where he also began his studies. First, at the National Academy of Dramatic Art, he studied acting. Later, history at Warsaw University before eventually graduating in 1961 in Polish language studies.

He started his literary career as a columnist, writing short, ironic texts which were published in the newly established weekly newspaper Kultura.

This led to wide recognition as an insightful and sarcastic observer of Polish everyday life. At the end of 60’s, two collections of his stories had been published as books.

It was then that Głowacki turned his hand to screenwriting, first for Andrzej Wajda’s Polowanie na muchy (Hunting Flies) and shortly after, with friend Marek Piwowski, for what was to become one of the most important films in communist Poland - Rejs (The Cruise, aka The Trip Down the River).

The film, which was subjected to heavy censorship, was an ironic depiction of the absurdities of the social and political situation in Poland and quickly gained status as a cult film, which it remains today.

After gaining recognition for his screenwriting, he turned towards the theatre, his first play being Cudzołóstwo ukarane” (Adultery Punished) which was staged in Warsaw in 1972.

Janusz Głowacki, April 1973Janusz Uklejewski/PAP

More followed and in 1979 he staged possibly one of his most important plays, and one that would certainly change his life, Kopciuch (Cinders).

Two years later, Cinders appeared at The Royal Court Theatre in London where it was met with enthusiastic reviews with The Guardian describing it as "the best fringe production of the year".

It was during his time in London that the Communist authorities in Poland imposed Martial Law leading Głowacki to settle in New York’s East Side where he brought over his future wife Ewa Zadrzynska, and their daughter Zuza.

Meanwhile, “Cinders” was triumphing around the world. In Frankfurt, Seoul, Belgrade, Buenos Aires or Taipei. In 1984 the play was staged at the New York Shakespeare Festival, starring Christopher Walken, and directed by John Madden.

Frank Rich of The New York Times raved: “Mr. Glowacki has a keen ability to mine the dark, absurdist humor in the language of terror”.

In 1986 a new play by Głowacki appeared – “Hunting Cockroaches”. The playwright himself described it as “a comedy, a very funny play about a very serious subject: two people, a famous writer and an actress, who lose everything except their accents. And they landed in this new country, lost in this different culture, language, city, everything. I showed how surreal this situation was for these people”.

The play was first staged at the Manhattan Theater Club, directed by Arthur Penn and starred Dianne Wiest, Ron Silver and Dianne Wiest as a pair of Polish immigrants.

“Hunting Cockroaches” received the Joseph Kesselring Award (1987) and the Hollywood Drama League Critics Award (1987). In the US, the play has been produced more than forty times.

The author in front of his photographic portraits, The National Museum in Warsaw, September 2007.Andrzej Rybczyński/PAP

And then came Antigone. “Antigone in New York”, or “Antygona w Nowym Jorku”, as it was called in Polish, had its premiere in Warsaw in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the communist regime.

Telling the story of homeless immigrants in New York's Tompkins Square Park, the play was listed in Time magazine as one of the best ten plays of 1993, with The Vineyard Theater in Manhattan staging it in 1996. 

In an interview with the Warsaw-based English-language newspaper The Warsaw Voice, Głowacki described it as: “A very cruel, disappointing, awful microcosm of the world because it's a Puerto Rican friend, a Polish friend, Ukrainian, Jamaican, Cuban. I spent a lot of nights and days in this park. Some were funny, some were nightmarish. I drank and talked with them, became friends”.

Other Głowacki plays to receive international acclaim include Fortinbras Got Drunk (1990) and “The Fourth Sister (2002), a riff on Chekhov.

Głowacki was also an excellent novelist. His 2004 memoire “Z głowy” (Off the top of My Head) became a big seller, receiving numerous literary awards.

Głowacki returned to screenwriting, again collaborating with Andrzej Wajda, writing the script for the biopic of Lech Wałęsa, called “Walesa. Man of Hope” (2013).

His last work before his death was co-writing the screenplay for Paweł Pawlikowski’s film “Cold War”, which went on to win the Cannes D’or.

His daughter Zuzanna told TFN that the book he was writing at the time of his death will be called Insomnia in the Time of Carnival and will be published in October.

Janusz Głowacki died a little more than a year ago, on August 19th, 2017, aged 78.